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Cease and desist order issued for Oklahoma museum that never got permission to build

It is a project that received thousands of tax dollars through a secretive, and little known, state budget process and has been plagued with problems and controversies nearly since its inception. The project is supposed to be an aquarium for the tiny town of Medicine Park, just outside Lawton. However, the project is facing a new hurdle because project leaders failed to get state approval before starting construction.

The Medicine Park Museum and Aquarium project broke ground in the fall of 2011. It has promised to open several times over the past three years, but was delayed due to funding problems and investigations into questionable activities connected to the site's development.

This month, the Oklahoma State Fire Marshal's office issued a cease and desist order for all construction on the mountain-side project because no one with the project had ever applied for a building permit or submitted a building plan for review as required by law.

"We ensure the building is built to code; the current code," said Sam Schafnitt of the State Fire Marshal's office, "And we make sure it is safe for the citizens of Oklahoma to enter that structure." Schafnitt said an inspector was in Medicine Park on an unfounded complaint when he noticed the apparent commercial construction happening alongside Highway 49. When the inspector found out the city was building an aquarium without any building permit he issued a "cease and desist" order for any further construction until building plans were submitted and approved by the fire marshal's office.

"Generally speaking," Schafnitt said, "assembly occupancies, which that would be because they are having the general public in it, are going to be required to have sprinklers and fire alarms." However, since the museum has not submitted any plans, there is no way to inspect what will be required in way of fire suppression because the fire marshal's office doesn't know how big the structure is. Schafnitt said the aquarium could be able to avoid a sprinkler system if they installed firewalls inside.

However there are no fire walls inside the aquarium. There is no sprinkler system installed or planned; there is only a fire alarm system that is in the planning stages, but not yet installed according to the aquarium project director Doug Kemper. Kemper told Fox 25 because they are using a "pre-engineered steel building" they are not subject to any fire suppression requirements. "It is not required," Kemper told Fox 25.

Kemper said the building project received a building permit from the city of Medicine Park when construction began. However, the city of Medicine Park does not have a full-time code enforcement officer and cannot issue such permits according to the State Fire Marshal's office. Kemper calls the violation a "misunderstanding." "We knew an occupancy permit would not be issued until the plans were submitted; we procrastinated, or the people doing the drawings procrastinatedin doing the drawings," Kemper said.

Kemper said a private inspector has been approving the work and that they just never completed the official blueprints needed for the fire marshal permit process, but admits that they may have put "the cart before the horse." "It's not like we don't have plans," Kemper said, "They are just not in the final form."

This is not the first time the museum project has made decisions that would end up wasting money. Fox 25 previously reported the museum bought a cougar cub before they had a building in place or a proper home for the animal.

Kemper told Fox 25 the fire marshal will expedite its building permit request. However Schafnitt told Fox 25 the office would not allow the project to cut in line in front of other commercial construction projects that have followed the rules and submitted plans for approval before starting construction.

Schafnitt said until the plans are approved there is to be no construction happening to the structure, but inside work involving moving around aquarium exhibits already inside the building may proceed. "Don't build anything else on the building," Schafnitt told Fox 25 of his orders to the project directors, "I think there is a gazebo attached and I said no more, you've got to stop."

However, Fox 25 made an unannounced trip to the community days after the cease and desist order was issued and found construction workers still onsite. Pictures taken by Fox 25 show workers doing what appeared to be construction work to the gazebo area that the Schafnitt said he specifically said should not be worked on. Kemper denied any work was being done to the structure, despite Fox 25's investigation findings, and claimed the workers were doing work to the driveway and retaining walls. However, the driveway and retaining walls are not located under the gazebo on the project site.

"That would not be appropriate," Schafnitt said when asked about work continuing at the site, "I will notify our local agent down there and have him drive by and remind them what cease and desist means."

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